In Brief
  • The race is on to isolate and study surviving tissue from the earliest epochs of life—an invaluable tool for reconstructing the living things of anterior ages.
  • Two new studies are showing the headway that's being made: the confirmation of 80 million-year-old collagen, and possibly the survival of tissue that's much, much older.

Ancient Proteins

A great deal of what makes dinosaurs fascinating is the mystery that surrounds these species. Granted, we’ve learned enough about them over the past years, but much of what we know is still sketchy assumptions based on fossilized remnants of dinosaurs. But now, two discoveries suggest that we can learn more about dinosaurs by isolating fossilized protein fragments—actual bits of biological tissue surviving over greater spans of time than ever thought possible.

The first study was led by North Carolina State University paleontologist and long-time dinosaur protein chaser Mary Schweitzer, who back in 2009 famously claimed to have found controversial 80-million-year-old dinosaur collagen. Specifically, she found two fragments of collagen 1, a structural protein found in skin and other connective tissue.

To satisfy critics who claimed that her samples were contaminated with modern proteins, Schweitzer revisited her 2009 study published in Science. Now, her team found eight protein fragments. “If [both sets] are from contamination, that’s almost impos­sible,” Schweitzer said. While the first discovered protein fragments resembled those of living alligators and other reptiles, new data from the second batch of fragments showed a better match to that of birds.

Credit: Mary Schweitzer North Carolina State University, and ICAL facility, Montana State University

The second study, published in the journal Nature Communications, is the work of a team led by paleontologist Robert Reisz from the University of Toronto in Canada. The team reports to have found a 195 million-year-old fossil rib of a Lufengosaurus, a plant eating dinosaur. Reisz’s team used Raman spectroscopy and synchrotron-radiation Fourier trans­form infrared (SR-FTIR) microspectroscopy to probe the chemical makeup of the sample. SR-FTIR doesn’t require the sample to be purified beforehand, which lowers the chances of contamination. Reisz and colleagues observed how the rib reflected infrared light in wavelengths that matched those of collagen found in modern animals.

Jurassic Park? Not Yet.

Both studies seem groundbreaking, but ancient protein expert Enrico Cap­pellini of the University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum of Denmark retains a critical eye. For one thing, no one is quite sure how these collagen fragments have survived for hundreds of millions of years.

Cappellini, who was skeptical of Schweitzer’s 2009 work, considers the new study a “milestone,” saying that he’s “fully convinced beyond a reasonable doubt the evidence is authen­tic.” On the other had, Cappellini thinks that the Reisz study is “a long shot that is suggestive.”

He, as well as Schweitzer, said that SR-FTIR isn’t capable of identifying which protein is present nor its sequence. “Synchrotron data is very powerful, but it’s limited,” Schweitzer said. “I would like to have seen confirmatory evidence.” Reisz acknowledged this and said “that certainly would be the next step.” Cappellini believes, however, that both the Schweitzer and Reisz studies show potential to turn dinosaur paleontology into a molecular science—with the promise, someday, of not just reconstructing the skeletons of extinct organisms, but recreating their true life appearance as well.

While these studies will hardly lead to cloning dinosaurs à la Jurassic Park, both set a good precedent for followup studies.

“The door is now open,” Schweitzer said.

Here’s to kicking that door to splinters and committing a little paleontological B&E.